Eric Adams is the Borough President of Brooklyn, New York City, and previously served as a Democratic State Senator. Prior to that, Mr. Adams served as a police officer in the New York City Police Department for 22 years. After a recent diagnosis of diabetes, he went vegan. Below is a conversation with Aph Ko and Eric Adams about his political evolution, as well as his dietary evolution.
Eric: I grew up in South Queens, and at the age of 15, I was arrested and assaulted by the police during the arrest. I later became a member of the New York City Police Department and started an organization called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. We were a civil rights organization that happened to have been law enforcement officers. I became an advocate for highlighting police injustice. I eventually became a captain in that police department and later became a state senator. Then I was eventually elected to become the first African American to be the Borough President of Brooklyn. I am the Chief Executive of the largest of the five boroughs. I’ve been serving for three years now in this capacity and many of my concerns are around how we build better people, not so much in how we build better structures. So if you were to sum up my life in a sentence, I went from breaking the law, to enforcing the law, to writing the law…so I evolved as a human being.
BVR: When you were younger, what inspired you to go into law enforcement?
Eric: I was inspired to go into law enforcement after the brutal beatings that my brother and I experienced from police. I thought that being on the outside complaining would not change the situation. In order to get rid of the demons that I felt inside from that assault, I had to go inside the police department and fight with a vengeance. I wanted to at least have a good fight on the field and that’s the way I do it every day. As I moved up through the ranks, I never drifted away from why I was there, and I continue to do that.
My evolution to politics was that during the time of being a police officer, I saw social issues on the front lines. I saw young people lose their lives to senseless violence, I saw the proliferation of hand guns, I saw young people getting arrested—many of them were unable to write their names or spell out their names. I saw the countless numbers of victims of crimes from sexual abuse to domestic violence and I realized with the experience that I had in law enforcement, I should take it to go shape policy now, and that’s what I did. I ran for office. I was able to take my experience, my first-hand view of what was happening, and bring it to the center of our nation’s capital, and introduce bills and pass laws that would impact some of those social ills that I saw.
BVR: How do you see your recent move to veganism as it relates to your life history and your political efforts?
Eric: It’s a continued evolution. I believe that this journey that I am on is a spiritual journey as well as a physical journey. I believe that we all have a purpose in life, and that purpose will continue to evolve. It is my purpose and my destiny and I have to stay true to it. And veganism is so much a part of that including my diagnosis of diabetes in April of last year. I believe sometimes our subconsciousness has designed us to be whole and sometimes it has to shock us into reality by having something happen in our lives that forces us to stay true to that wholeness that we’re seeking.
Prior to being diagnosed with diabetes, for whatever reason, I was going through a series of reading and studying the body’s ability to heal itself. I later went to see my doctor for unrelated pain and then I was told that I was diabetic, and when the doctor said I would have to take medicine for the rest of my life, I came in armed with this understanding that the body could heal itself, and I told him, no I am not. I wanted my body and it’s healing system to heal me, and that is how this journey started on the next lane that I think is going to be the most important lane which is to show people, particularly people of color, wellness…and wellness is something that we need to embrace and veganism is only an aspect of that wellness—it is not the complete picture of wellness.
In order for the vehicle of the human body to function, we have to give it its right fuel so it can carry us where we need to go. My son summed it up better. When I told him I was a diabetic, he said “Dad, I watched you go from service station to service station finding the right gas to put in your car so it would not clog your fuel injector, how did you not put the right food in your body so it didn’t clog your veins or arteries?”
We cannot continue to be academically brilliant, and nutritionally ignorant. All of the things that we have done as people of color to obtain degrees, to build businesses, to have these valuable lifestyles with homes, those are all physical. It is what we do to our bodies now...we have to go inward and focus on our bodies and the first start of that is to make sure that we are giving our bodies the fuel it needs to carry out this task and this mission.
BVR: I relate to you. My mother has diabetes as well and I’ll ask you a question later about that, however, I really like how you take that angle about people of color gravitating towards this message of health. A lot of research demonstrates that big corporations in the US are trying to form a superficial relationship with black people to ensure that they remain life-long consumers of meat. How do you see yourself and your activism going up against these big corporations?
Eric: My mother is also diabetic and I’ll share with you her journey—my sister and brother are also diabetic—diabetes is in the family. My goal is to completely understand that this journey is not a dash, it’s a marathon. We don’t always live to see the completion of it. I have the baton in my hand and I want to hand it off to the person to cross the finish line. This marathon is weaning our people off of meat products, (I do not consume any meat products at all). If it has a sister, a brother, a mother…I do not eat it.
It’s not merely that I’m just embracing something because it sounds good, I’m a spiritual person as well as a logical person. I spent many years going to school to attain my master’s degree. The data says that animal products are not fit for human consumption. I’m just going based on what the data says. I don’t expect everyone to embrace this right away. For some people, we’re going to have to pry that chicken wing out of their hand, and I understand that, but what I do know is that there are three types of people around health.
There’s that person who, even when they’re told that they have depression, diabetes, they will open the doctor’s door with one hand, and have a coca cola in the other hand…we have to come and get them later. As Harriet Tubman said, for the people who do not want to be free, we’ll come back for you when the war is over. Then you have that number two type person, and this person wants to do better, but they don’t know how. They’re inundated with so much stimuli that pushes them to eat the wrong thing and the information’s not there, they don’t have a true support system in place. They need a built-in system with a nutritionist who can show them how a plant-based diet is good. We need to stop telling people that they shouldn’t eat something, and instead, offer them support to help them stop eating it. The third type of person is like me- they have discipline, we have an assignment and we’re going to carry it out.
Until we stop treating everyone like they’re type one, who just doesn’t care and just wants a pill, we are never going to move people in the right direction. Identify the person, identify what type of treatment they need, and then make a plan to make them move.
BVR: Tracye McQuirter, MPH, has an article titled, Keep Eating for Activism. She writes, “…it’s important to note that just as there were 313 extrajudicial killings of black people in 2012, there were more than 300,000 preventable deaths of black people in 2010 caused by diet-related chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and hypertensive disease.” Do you see an intersection between racism and diet?
Eric: I think it has a lot to do with it. I wrote an article in my newsletter that talked about suicide. The evidence is showing that nutrition is directly related to our mental health: depression, anxiety…all of this is being impacted by the food we eat. When you go to any impoverished community or economically challenged community, you will see facilities surrounding them like a fort, preventing people from getting out—chicken wings, fried rice, fried hamburgers, french fries, fried meat. When they go to the grocery store, there is no fresh fruits or vegetables. Even the vegetable products have been ruined with oil.
There’s an over concentration of these food products in communities of color. If you map all of this out, you will see that not only do they have a high consumption of these animal products, there’s a high number of cancer, diabetes, hypertension, all of the indicators. The 15 top reasons we die in America are in these same communities where the lack of these quality foods, plant-based foods, do not exist, and it’s not taught on the educational level as well, so there’s a direct correlation. This hasn’t been framed as a state of emergency because number one, these issue are predominantly happening in communities of color and number two, these issues are happening in spaces where people are economically challenged.
BVR: What advice do you have for black people in the U.S. who don’t feel like veganism or plant-based eating is for them because of media stereotypes that portray healthy eating as a wealthy white person’s terrain?
Eric: I cannot expect them to be where I am because I am there, I have to meet people where they are and take them from there with their entry points. So, one entry point is someone in their household, which we all do, is going through some serious illness…show them how you can change that with a plant-based diet. I wouldn’t even put it in a category by calling it vegan or vegetarian, I would just say listen…here’s a way that you can turn around your family member’s illness. I wasn’t just a diabetic, I was a super diabetic.
If you have a family member whose tired of injecting themselves with insulin twice a day in their stomach or their knees, or if you have a family member who is afraid of having their limbs amputated which happens when you have diabetes, or if you have a family member who doesn’t want to lose their sight because the highest rates of blindness comes from diabetes, then you can use my case study to show in 3 months…not 3 years…but in 3 months. When the doctor said the diabetes was no longer present in my body…it was 3 months of not eating meat to a tasty, lovable, plant-based diet. That’s the entry point—you don’t need to give it a name. Here is your prescription: instead of going to a pharmacy, go get some food.
BVR: What advice do you have for some people who might feel like it's too late for them to change their eating habits? For example, my mother is in her 50’s and she is a diabetic. Two of her children are vegan, however, she grew up in the south and is used to her southern food. Several times she has said to me, “I’m too old to change now…I’ve been living my life like this for so long that there’s no point in changing anything.”
Eric: You just spelled out a typical family scenario. We have a role as the children. Our parents took care of us when we were incapable of taking care of ourselves, and now it’s our turn to take care of them. My mom is going to come and stay with me for 2 weeks so that I can show her. She’s also from the south and she eats southern food. She’s going to be visiting and I’m going to show her some videos about what food can do, and I’m also going to show her my nutritional bible How Not To Die by Dr. Greger. I’m going to show her videos to give her some information and I’m not going to focus so much on what she should not do, I’m going to focus on what she should add to her diet.
By adding more to her diet, it’s going to slowly push those bad things off her plate. I’ll show her how you can cook great vegan meals. We have to readjust our palate. Our human palate is a palate that adjusts to taste. We didn’t start out liking chitlins, we didn’t start out liking the unhealthy cow foods. That was something that we had to eat. Those were the scraps that the slave master left over. Just as we evolved to like something that didn’t taste good, we can evolve to enjoy eating something like cauliflower, beans, and avocados. I also like to add in Indian spices that can sometimes have more nutritional value than the foods that we eat.
I want my mother to taste that and realize that veganism doesn’t mean you have to eat a cardboard diet, that you can eat a diet where you have a special connection with your food, as you know that this food is healthy and it’s going into your body, not to feed disease, but to fight it.
BVR: Will we be seeing more about veganism from Eric Adams?
Eric: I’m excited about using my voice to really show how our healthcare system is not sustainable, to move to start a process of teaching children in school that part of their education should be from soil to plate…how to grow food…how to live a healthy lifestyle, how to rid our kitchen of food that gets in the way of living a healthy lifestyle. I really want to use this moment, my lap, to ensure that I’m running a good race around wellness. I’m extremely excited about it. We can live a healthy lifestyle with minor adjustments to what we eat. When we rid ourselves of animal products, we will rid ourselves of the pain, the injury, and the constant fatigue. We’re dying because our bodies can no longer sustain themselves from what we feed it.